By Abdulwarees Solanke
It would be unrealistic for any country, unless it has a very small population with a centralized infrastructure and bureaucracy, to consider that it could prepare a detailed and comprehensive pandemic plan in weeks, or even months.
Two of the reasons tis plan take time is that there is need for multi-sectoral approach and the need to involve the community.
Multi-sectoral approach means involvement of many levels of government and people with different areas of skill, including policy development, legislative review and drafting, animal health, human population health, patient care, laboratory diagnosis, laboratory test development, communication expertise and disaster management.
Community involvement means making optimal use of local knowledge, expertise, resources and networks. It is the only way to engage people and build the commitment needed for policy decisions.
The above quotation is excerpted from the 2004 edition of WHO Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Checklist to illustrates the role of stakeholders in managing disasters and emergencies and interrogates the imperative of strategic communication in uncertain times as the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Nigeria, what we are therefore confronted with, as any other country that is exposed to the Corona Virus Pandemic, is emergency risk management.
First, are we getting it right? Second, who are the stakeholders in the situation or context we find ourselves?
The World health Organization in that public publication, in recommending multi-sectoral approach, has tacitly enumerated the stakeholders.
But specifically, as outlined on the website of Tafe NSW, an Australian vocational education and training provider, the stakeholders in emergency risk management are those individuals or organisations that may contribute to, be affected by or be involved in the planning, response or recovery from an emergency situation.
Stakeholders may include:
Emergency services (e.g. fire, police, SES, ambulance and recovery agencies)
Event organisers (e.g. concerts, car rallies, sport, etc)
Hospital / medical personnel and care givers
Interest, community, professional and industry groups
Local business people
Local government (e.g. elected representatives, engineers, community development officers, etc)
Managers of high occupancy facilities (e.g. shopping centres, high-rise apartments office blocks, etc)
Managers of critical infrastructure (e.g. telecommunications, mining, petrochemical and gas)
Providers of utilities (e.g. electricity, water, gas, radio and television)
Commonwealth / state / territory agencies (e.g. public works, human services, health, transport, natural resources, primary industry, environmental protection, emergency management, etc)
Specialist waste removalists.
All these I consider being at the Frontlines. But given the character of the Nigerian polity and the bureaucratic tradition of the country, it is almost certain that no matter what foot the government puts forward first, it will still be a victim of public flaks because Nigeria is not a small population and any issue or development is always controversial, indeed misunderstood or misrepresented in the country because of our diversity and diverging interests and affiliations.
So, managing emergencies in Nigeria would still be as problematic as managing the country’s diversity.
Nonetheless, the essential problems are of coordination and communication among the critical stakeholders. Who should be doing or saying what?
In an era of information explosion, driven by the tools and technologies of the social media, so many experts have crowded the public space to the extent of muffling official views and authoritative positions.
With the dominance of purveyors of fake news and mischief makers, the credibility of government views is often eroded.
The danger here is we might be recording more casualties among the infected and the vulnerable as well as on the frontlines as a result of information contamination or pollution by wielders of social media powers.
Secondly, an industry of opportunism may rise in the misinformation that would normally characterize the confusing situation.
People in panic would do anything at any cost to protect themselves in spite of the assurances of the authorities.
By the time emergency subsides and evaluation commences, we will find that preventable losses would surface, unnecessary spending would recorded, baseless fears entertained, unreliable experts rose, irrelevant myths endured, and these are what we will be left to be reflecting on.
At times like this therefore when those at the frontlines are usually the most at risk in managing uncertain situations we can only ponder on the nature and character of the communication strategies that are needed to be evolved and deployed to keep all safe, clear phobias, reduce cost, mitigate impact, provide survival tips and give workable alternatives and remedies.
In these, the frontlines would not be unnecessarily stretched beyond the limit of their capacity and the state will be saved of needless expenditure during such emergencies.
While preparing this material, I came across a blog that offers a good recipe.
Its author explained that emergency managers are responsible for leading their staff, citizens, media and partners through disasters and emergency situations, noting that when disasters strike, panic and confusion can ensue, and it’s up to disaster managers to set a good example, and remain diligent and calm at all times.
These five tips were offered.
First, in recommending emergency managers to make the message clear, the blog noted that an emergency is no time to mince words or use impressive vernacular. It’s a time to present information with simplicity and clarity so that everyone understands what is happening and the instructions to follow.
Second is the imperative of keeping the message consistent.
As important as clarity, the consistency of a message helps ensure everyone is on the same page. In certain crises, there may be more than one authority sharing information and it needs to be identical to the others’ message.
When information is presented, it needs to be given with one voice; this is particularly important for avoiding misinformation and miscommunication.
Of vital importance is timeliness of communication as the blog explains that along with a clear and consistent message, emergency managers need to have an awareness of time.
If too much time goes by without any recurring information or updates, miscommunication and incorrect assumptions may arise.
Timely, consistent and clear messages, it said, need to translate to all communication methods as well.
While these methods include TV and radio, there is another resource that is being used more and more for immediate information: social media.
It therefore also emphasized on the need to track social media, advising managers to adapt with the times as social media has become a major information source for people.
Social media it justified is ideal for quickly reaching a large group of people, but may not be necessary depending on the emergency, nothing that part of an emergency manager’s role is to identify the most appropriate communication level and presence.
Finally, the blog counselled emergency managers to select the most appropriate level of communication as the appropriate communication methods will reach people that are affected, and can be reliable even with limited accessibility. TVs and radios are some of the most common communication methods, but newer ones are being implemented to further connect with target audiences with greater reliability.
Methods such as social media notifications and text messages can reach individuals quickly and personally for better safety assurance.
For us in Nigeria, a strategic and successful management of information on COVID-19 pandemic will be a pointer to our capacity to cope with future crisis attain many of the targets outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Hopefully, if the government and its relevant agencies can channel more resources into communicating with the public as much as the resources being pumped into detection and cure for the infection, while coordinating well with other critical stakeholders, the frontlines will be less stressed and more lives will be saved.
Therefore, we can come out of this pandemic with important lessons to learn in coping with any emergency, though we don’t pray for one.
Abdulwarees, is an Assistant Director of Strategic Planning and Corporate Development, Voice of Nigeria and a member of the Publicity Committee of the Muslim Coalition Against COVID-19 in Nigeria